Tuesday, March 9, 2004

Yellowstone Valley Woman, Billings, Montana

Cory Jaeger: Crafting a passion into a career

by Heather Torrence

(photo: Cory and "The Three Michaels"--three men, all named Michael, who have been important in her life.)

Cory Jaeger, a Billings artist and entrepreneur, is a very busy woman these days. Having just closed an exhilarating show at the Yellowstone Art Museum, The Men Series, in mid-January, Cory is not willing to rest for even a brief moment.

The Men Series is a provocative show. Power, sexuality, love and politics all make their way into her colorful and passionate work. The series is not finished, however, the thirteen pieces displayed make a strong statement about the men in our culture. On a more personal note, Cory describes the works as "a series of pieces depicting the men I have known and loved." In fact, some of these poignant pieces will make their way to Sutton West gallery in Missoula, where Cory's work will be included in a March 2004 show.

She also has earlier works on display at a solo show at the University of Illinois (Chicago); here, her art is showcased within a specifically feminist framework. Cory is not afraid of being called a feminist artist. In fact, she takes up the mantle proudly. Some of the artists she most admires are those who have intentionally brought a feminist perspective to their art, including Judy Chicago and Karen Kitchell. She speaks of a "new feminism," though--one "beyond equal pay." Instead, Cory's work is heavily influenced by her personal commitment to explore gender, courtship, relationships, and sometimes, violence. "I am reflecting back...on my own 37 years" Her work, she says, has become more and more personal with time, incorporating her experiences and reactions into the physical body of her work.

Both the art and the artist are refreshingly open and candid. Cory's work--whether a portrait of still life--comes across boldly and honestly. Viewing her work, it is easy to match the paintings with this forthright and determined woman. Her visual style is colorful and vivid, seamlessly conveying powerful emotions like joy or anger, yet comfortable with a joke or bit of subtlety. In fact, Cory tackles big themes of violence and power with as much intensity and humor. She is unafraid to tackle something as big as AIDS in Africa, yet open to the simple, tiny beauty of a flower.

Her art career has always required passion and sense of humor. Indeed, Cory calls herself a "virtuoso of stubborness." She majored in psychology at MSU Billings (with an art minor), graduating with Honors in 1995. Intending to dedicate her life to criminology, she changed her mind and decided to pursue her art for one year after graduation. Cory says she felt compelled to give painting at least one year of her full attention (it has now been 7 years of working as a professional artist.) She immediately started seeking exposure for her work and actively pursuing opportunities to show and sell, including cajoling cafe owners and other business people to hang her art on their walls.

She says that when she was painting at first, she simply thought, "I am home." Her instincts remained steady and, as she began a full-time career as an artist, she knew that she needed to follow this path. She says she is "intrinsically motivated" by her love for art and sharing it with the world. In fact, when we talked about her inspirations, she becomes visibly impassioned. "I have so many ideas, and so many visions, and I can't wait to share them all." In fact, in the past seven years her body of work--and the shows including it--has grown robustly. Past exhibitions include numerous shows in Montana and Wyoming; in addition to the Yellowstone Art Museum, she has been shown at the Toucan Gallery here in Billings, the Danforth Gallery (Livingston, MT), the Kalispell Regional Medical Center (MT), the Nicolaysen Arts Museum (Casper, WY), and the Exit Gallery (Bozeman, MT). In addition, she continues to build a national career with exhibitions at the Richmond Arts Center (CA), the Alder Gallery (OR), the Idaho Falls Center for the Arts and the Corvallis Arts Center (OR). She also received a 2001 Barbara Deming Memorial Fund Grant, used for the "pressed beneath a heavy sky" exhibit shown at Toucan Gallery.

However satisfying, living as a full-time artist can be extremely challenging economically and emotionally. She still feels compelled to "fight the system", moving around obstacles and staying inspired. The business world of art is often remarkably difficult and can be very frustrating, often ignoring the "mind-jarring, consciousness-raising work out there" in favor of whatever is viewed as "cute, pretty, and easily understood." Cory points out, "art was never designed, and still isn't, to match the living room couch." To keep herself grounded and energized, she frequently reads biographies of other artists, looking for motivation and ideas to continue to survive, grow, and thrive. Legendary artists Frida Kahlo, Pablo Picasso, as well as the late Bill Stockton, influence her ongoing work through their own stories of persistence and stubbornness.

Like all but a few artists, Cory faces stark financial reality in the art world; it doesn't usually pay well. To supplement her sales, she created Italics, a career consulting firm offering two primary services: resume development and artist portfolio services. She frequently works with those changing careers, noting that there is a surprisingly large group of people today who feel mismatched with their chosen professions. Her other group of clients are other artists who need help and support in launching the business aspects of their own careers--promoting themselves and marketing their work. Italics also supports a number of other projects through its website at www.italics.us.

She is also an ardent supporter of public art, although she says she would like to see Billings expand its understanding of "public art". Cory wants to see more experimentation and more non-traditional art shared with the community--and more opportunities for emerging artists to share their visions. She mentions projects done in other communities through the Gunk Foundation, which supports "durable projects" that bring art into "less arty" parts of town. Rather than simply focusing on the historic or upscale venues in town, Cory vehemently supports public art that brightens the landscape of more impoverished or run-down neighborhoods.

Cory repeatedly brings us the topic of new and/or young artists. In addition to providing them with technical assistance, Cory is drawn to their energy, ideas, and spirit. She says that she loves to go to the downtown coffee shop Artspace and check out new shows. She offers some focused advice to anyone starting out in the arts: "Never let anyone define your art. Expect one acceptance out of 50 rejections. You will not be an overnight sensation. " She suggests to others the one thing that has worked so well for her--persistence. When she began that first year as a working artist, she did not wait for galleries and patrons to come to her, she assertively pursued possible venues and opportunities. Today she has transformed herself into a confident, polished artist/businesswoman, but her sense of persistence still guides her.

As a service to artists beginning their careers, she also teaches a free class through MacIntosh Art Supply called "Art and the Public Eye," which seeks to help artists develop a professional plan, something "nobody teaches you in art school." She also authors a seasonal newsletter called "revolution 101--for the brave...at art," which combines her desire to help other artists with her own creative interests. In the Fall/Winter issue, she profiles Karen Benner, an artist working in pastel and collage to express her chronic pain. In addition, she includes some thoughts on the working life of an artist.

Cory says that many people, upon meeting her (and other "creative types") assume that "working artist" is shorthand for a luxuriously lazy life. People can see her job as a continual party or vacation, where she can show up when she chooses. The stereotype, says Cory, is that artists only work when they are "inspired" to create. Instead, her work life is much like anyone else's. Art is her job and she shows up every day, inspired or not. She often creates warm up activities for herself and will work on something quite a while, even if she feels dissatisfied or aggravated. She emphasizes that she does not simply pick up the brush and produce top quality, gallery-ready work: "I think I wrestle constantly with people thinking I am living this carefree life, when I often put in a twelve-hour workday, and only a few hours of that is actually painting. (The rest tends to be more business-oriented, including seeking locations for shows and planning publicity and marketing.) I think it has meant a great deal of sacrifice for my family and I. They have given me their support, although I must admit when my kids hit their teen years their mother's choice of career has been much harder to accept. However, I have the luxury of doing exactly what I feel I am supposed to be doing in my life, which is a rarity in this world." Cory heartily encourages everyone who feels compelled to express themselves creatively; as a woman who married very young and spent much of her time as a single mother (she was widowed at 24), she knows that it is difficult, but possible to live the artist's life.

(photo: Cory's latest project, Nine Wishes, is an internet-based project involving a host of other artists.)

Her newest project is "Nine Wishes", an internet-based collaboration project combining the visual arts with an esoteric vision of energy, magic, and goodwill. Using the Italics website, Nine Wishes launched on January 31, 2004, with nine pieces shown, all originals by Cory. She created the initial wishes out of her own aspirations and hopes for the world. The "twist", however is that Cory sees these nine as only the beginning. She hopes that others will respond to the call for wishes that she has posted on the website. With a new take on collaborative art, Cory will work with the wish's "author" to create talismans that can "summon fresh spiritual energy for the...new year." Yet, she says, she has "no idea what will happen", as others become more involved and as she surrenders some of the creative process to others who she may only know through the Internet. Unlike most shared artistic ventures, Cory will continue to work as the sole visual artist, but will continue her energies with a countless number of creative thinkers.

Her own family includes her two children, 17 year old Dallas and 20 year old Darrell, who live in Billings and continue to be a source of joy and support for her. She is also engaged to be married to Dave Kenat, a Billings detention officer. She laughs when she mentions his profession, as she has finally a nexus to her psychology degree and interest in criminology.

Cory continues to passionately expand her vision and grow as a woman and an artist. Her dedication to the artist's community allows her to assist others in their creative development as well. In the poem (all the wishes have accompanying poetry, composed by Cory) accompanying Wish #9: "A Wish for Clear Vision," one can see Cory's hopes, not just for herself, but for the creator and artist in all of us: "Let us imagine/The future/Found in the quicksilver/Gleam/Of still and crystal water./We are now sure of the way/We have chosen--/Looking ahead/With eyes that see/The distant horizon." Cory takes this inspiration directly to our community--sharing a positive and affirming vision with all of us while supporting and encouraging many of the artists who work among us and inspire us each day.